On Blogging Again and Opening New (Classroom) Doors

I could sit around all afternoon and explain in great detail all the posts I wrote in my head between last January and right now. Life hasn’t exactly been boring, and I’ve had plenty to say. I just haven’t said it.

I could have written about the heavy days following the almost-breakup I was writing about in January… but that seemed hypocritical in view of the relatively positive note I’d last ended on. Also, I doubt it would have made very good reading.

I could have written about the really cool Tom Bombadil painting I did (after all, isn’t that one of the reasons I have this blog? To write about my art?) But the time came and passed.

I could have written about my close friend’s struggle with mental and physical illness this summer, but that was not my story to tell. Besides, I didn’t want to embarrass her.

I could have written about my reactions to the whole gay-marriage debate, but I’d grown far too tired of everyone yelling at each other and no one thinking straight (I know, I know, horrible pun) to subject myself to that same scrutiny (cowardly, I know). Also, by the time my thoughts on the matter had begun to gel into something resembling coherence, everyone seemed to have moved on to Cecil the Lion.

I could have written about writing, but, after all, isn’t it more time-effective to just go ahead and write the novel instead of writing about writing? (Besides, my summer job consumed so much of my time, I barely wrote. Why write about writing when you’re frustrated about not being able to write much in the first place? Talk about counterproductive!)

The time for excuses is past, though. A new school year is upon me, a new convention season is coming up, more people are going to be taking my business cards and looking up this hapless blog… so I’d better post something worth reading, sooner rather than later.

And what I’m going to post is, surprisingly, that I’m thankful to be still here, still posting. I’m thankful for the bad times and the good times I’ve had since January. Because even though there’s been an awful lot of awfulness this year, all of that awfulness has, I think, had its good sides. It’s refining me into a person who is better able to face life fearlessly and love others even when things seem bleak. It’s teaching me to take action, to cut out things that aren’t really worth my time and energy so I can focus on the things and people who really do matter so much to me.

And also, all of this has somehow inexplicably made me very thankful to be starting a new school year. I feel at home in my classroom, almost safe, settled. I love having students come to me, watching their faces light up as we talk about things that I love. I love seeing them learn. It is a beautiful thing.

It’s also, I might add, a particularly exciting school year. After years of such low numbers that most other schools would have given up, my little Christian high school has expanded… we’ve grown from the six students we started last year with to twenty students (!) from 6th through 12th grade. For the first time, I’m teaching middle school. For the first time, I’m teaching enough classes to merit having my own classroom (!!) which I spent way too much decorating. There was a lot of energy and excitement leading up to this past week, the first week of school.

And then the students came in the door.

And, after a week of organized chaos, the rhythm of a new school year has begun to settle–and it is good.

With this rhythm, I’ve even had time to work on my story. And, later today, I fully intend to get a new art project started. I’ve got big plans to do an Eowyn piece before GeekGirlCon next month. Maybe, if the first one goes well, I’ll even do a set.

I guess there’s a reason we have seasons. There’s a sense of refreshment as an old season closes and a new season starts, as a summer ends and a new school year begins.

It’s just enough refreshment to kick me into blogging again. Maybe I can keep it up for a while this time.

Hope is the Thing With Scales

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “That perches in the soul– and sings the music without words– and never stops– at all–”

I think mine doesn’t have feathers. I think it has scales. Scales made out of the same stuff they use to make blast shields in sci-fi movies.

Because like those stupid bugs that you can grind into the carpet and they still somehow live, I cannot seem to stop hoping that the worst of things will work out. Even if, for a day, I am convinced that there is no point and things are finally hopeless, the slightest touch, the slightest breath of promise, however far-fetched and foolish it might seem, revives my hope, and up it springs, tormenting me once again.

Yes, I say tormenting. And I know I’m being melodramatic, but I’m allowed to be. I’ve had a hideous week, and I can’t seem to give up hope.

That sounds like a wonderful thing, and, deep down, I suppose it is. But sometimes it would just be such a relief to actually be able to throw one’s hands up over a situation and walk away, heart at peace because there actually, truly is no hope. But no. Like one of those tough-shelled bugs, my hope only appears to die. Then it reappears to throw me back into the game.

And I’m not talking a gentleman’s game. More like the Hunger Games.

Allow me to provide a little background before I once again continue philosophizing. I teach at a minuscule Christian school. We had enough students–and just enough students– to run a full program this year. After putting more effort than I really had to give into promotional work last year, we still ended up with fewer students than we had last year. But we still had enough to run a program. Then, last week, one of our full-time students pulled out for “personal reasons.” And it was a student I’d personally connected with and spent a lot of love and tears on.

I cried so much Tuesday that my eyelids were puffy for two straight days. I do not exaggerate.

Tuesday I was convinced that the school could not survive. I finally began to consider the possibility that the promotional efforts had been in vain and maybe I should start looking for another job next school year. Maybe it was time to just give up. After all, what else could I do? I’d already tried.

But of course, the next day, our administrator and I tossed the situation back and forth, and he encouraged me to keep up the promotional work. And that night, I chatted with the student, who admitted that she might want to return at some point.

So, you see, hope is alive and well.

And it’s so very annoying.

Because, you see, there really is no good reason for it. My student could just as well decide to stay out of our school. I might not have any more luck getting our information out to churches that have already slammed the door on me once or twice. And if we don’t get any more students this year, who knows where my last couple of paychecks are going to come from? Hope is ridiculous.

But without it, nothing impossible would ever be attempted. And it’s true that every now and then, once in a blue moon, one chance in a thousand, something impossible actually does happen. Hope lives because miracles do sometimes happen. And on the off chance that this school will be one of them, I will act on my hope.

Pain and disappointment, here we come. All because that stupid scaly thing in my soul won’t die.

Fourth Graders (and Me) on Marriage

Besides teaching high school, this year I am also working several hours a day as a teacher assistant for a combined 4th/ 5th grade class at our “sister school,” Oak Harbor Christian School. While switching between 12th grade literature and 4th grade math within minutes has been a mental stretch, it’s a joy.

But I still can’t seem to get those fourth and fifth graders to call me “Miss” Heins. To them, any female adult worthy of a title must needs be a “Mrs.”

Today I decided to remedy this error. Every time a fourth grader called me “Mrs. Heins,” I replied, “Miss Heins. Mrs. Heins is my mom. A wonderful lady, but she’s not me.” It was cute, it made them giggle, and, best of all, by the time I was finishing up with them, most of them were getting it right.

But one girl, a lovable ants-in-her-pants fourth grader who likes to talk to me about Star Wars during recess, wouldn’t let it go. To her, it was just too astonishing that an adult female wouldn’t be a “Mrs.”

“You mean you’re not married?” she demanded incredulously.

“Nope.” I grinned back at her.

“You’ve NEVER been married??”

“Nope.”

And the freckle-faced imp looked at me and declared, “We’ve gotta find you a husband!”

I pointed down at her half-completed math test, and she got the idea.

It was cute. It made me smile. And, coming out of the mouth of a fourth-grader, there was nothing whatsoever offensive about it. In fact, I prided myself that maybe I’d opened her mind to the possibility that adult females are not, actually, always married.

In fact, if a freckled fourth-grader had been the only one to demand such a question of me, I wouldn’t be thinking twice about it. And I probably wouldn’t be blogging about it. But she isn’t.

As a Christian twenty-seven-year-old raised in quite conservative circles, I have been surrounded with the concept that I was born to be married. Not that my parents (bless them) ever told me that, but I was taught how to cook “for my family someday” and we did assemble “hope chests,” because, after all, we all “hoped” we’d get married someday. Basically, people talked about Christian girls growing up to do one of two things: be a mommy or be a missionary. And if you were really, really cool, you’d get to do both.

So I talked about being a missionary and planned on being a mommy. I think, deep down, I figured things would work out for me like they had for my parents: I’d go to a Christian college, meet Mr. Right there, and get married a couple of months after graduation.

But it didn’t happen.

Partly, that was my fault. I was a late bloomer. My freshman year I looked like I’d just come off the farm, and my sophomore year I tried to wear makeup and failed. By the time I was a junior, I was developing self-confidence and friendships, but still somehow seemed invisible to the opposite gender. I didn’t mind, though. By that time, I was taking a heavy load of writing classes and was deeply enjoying wading waist-deep through art and writing and other things that I loved. I had a tight-knit group of girlfriends. In other words, I was happy, socialized, and very, very busy.

By the time I knew it, I’d graduated, no boy in tow.

I didn’t have long to worry about my state. I got a job, and after a several-year, somewhat-rocky transition, I moved out of my parents’ house, got an apartment, made friends, and once again started filling my life chock-full of things that I loved and people I loved. Not that it’s always been perfect or happy, but my life is full and good and worth it. It doesn’t feel like “half a life.”

I remember talking with a friend I worked with at summer camp, who was in such agony to have a particular counselor as her boyfriend that I just kind of looked her at in shock. She really, truly felt like she was half a person without, well, “another half” (pernicious saying). It was something of an epiphany for me.

Why do so many of my fellow conservatively-raised Christian women feel this need to put their lives on hold until a man walks through the door and sweeps them off their feet? It’s not, I think, because we don’t WANT to be useful. I think most of us really do want to play a meaningful role in God’s story. I think it’s because we’ve been raised to think of ourselves as incomplete.

I don’t think our parents ever meant us to see ourselves that way. I know mine certainly didn’t. They wanted me, I think, to honor the role of motherhood in a world that often puts it down. They wanted me to be a good wife should I get married. And their intentions were pure. I think they did a better job, honestly, than many other parents I know did. (In a way, the very fact that boys were not the center of my life in college proves that.) I don’t and never have felt like I’m missing a half.

But now I get half-questions, half-thoughts from them and some of the other conservative Christian adults who have watched me grow up. Yes, it’s fantastic that I’m a teacher. But haven’t I done this “on my own” thing long enough? Haven’t I met a guy yet? In my student’s less tactful words, “We gotta find a husband for you!”

Maybe I have met a guy and maybe I haven’t. Frankly, I’m not even sure myself. I’ve dated a few times; I’ve made guy friends. I’ve more or less outgrown my awkwardness around guys. I am not in the least opposed to the idea of getting married. I would do it in an instant if I met a man I cared about enough and who cared about me enough.

But I do know this: I don’t mind if I stay single. And there is no guarantee that I will EVER get married. But I have no plans of ever moving back in with my parents. I like having my own place, where I can serve meals to people and write my stories and hang my art on the wall. And I sure do wish that the happily-married-for-30-years adults around me would be okay with it.

For now, though, I’ll settle with teaching fourth graders that “Miss” is nothing to be ashamed of.

Of X-Men and New Beginnings

The last few days have not exactly been the easiest.

Oh, they haven’t been horrible. I think most teachers will probably confess to not particularly enjoying the first week of school. But it hasn’t been the lack of prep time, or the odd shifting from my high school teaching job to my new 4-5th grade TA job and back again to the high school job, and it certainly hasn’t been student misbehaviors. The hardest thing has been coming back to my little, tiny Christian school, facing classrooms with literally half the students in them than I had last year, and having to put on a happy face that I do not feel about the situation.

My students look at me, and I can see it in their eyes–the strangeness of having so many fewer students, when all last year we complained about how the lunchroom was so small and talked about plans to bring in new students. A few will mention it. The others simply shift around awkwardly. Then they look at me, and I smile brightly back at them and reassure them that school this year is going to be wonderful, that we often have students join us partway through the school year, that they are here, and that is what matters.

And I mean it. But it hurts my heart to see the effort I put toward school promotion this year seem to have had no effect whatsoever. It hurts to have to continue to be positive about it, because, if I’m not, I’m not sure who will be.

Switching gears a little. Tonight I finally got to see “X-Men: Days of Future Past” with a friend.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know that Wolverine goes back in time to prevent something horrible from happening. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) In the process, he runs back into one of my new heroes, Professor X. But things have gone horribly wrong. The school is all but empty, and Professor X has sunk into alcoholism and self-medicating, even to the point of stunting his powers because it makes him “feel too much.”

Of course the empty school struck an instant chord, and when somebody mentioned that the last time they’d used the tool Cerebro was “to find students for the school,” I leaned over and drily whispered to my friend, “It’s like NWCHS.” My friend bumped my shoulder reassuringly and the movie continued.

Wolverine, whose gifts do not exactly lie in the realm of subtle persuasion, is in a tight spot as he tries to convince Professor X to pick up the pieces of his life. It takes past Professor X talking to present Professor X to get there (It did actually make a tremendous amount of sense). As part of this exchange, though, Professor X has to wade through all the pain and loneliness that is Wolverine’s history. Wolverine redirects his focus so he can find his younger self–then, before it is all over, Wolverine charges him to find the future students and teachers whose stories he’d seen.

“I’ll do my best,” says Professor X, looking a little worried.

“Your best is good enough,” says Wolverine.

And with that, Professor X– and Miss Heins– suddenly receive the bolstering we need to keep going.

My best is good enough. The enormity of the task is not my problem. It’s God’s. And I am simply His servant. My best is good enough. And, exactly like Professor X, my “best” is not nearly as much about saving a school as it is about the individuals who have gone through that school. Imperfect, hurting, beautiful individuals, not unlike Wolverine and Storm and Rogue and the others– individuals whose stories have held pain and problems and will continue to hold pain and problems, but who have been given hope. They have been given a chance to be part of a tiny community that grows and aches and stretches and smiles together. And many of them have been given hope in various ways. I even dare to think that some of them would look back on their time so far and see the pain and the joy and the late nights of homework and, like Wolverine, not mind having it stay just that way because they can see the value in it.

Professor X reminded his future self that he had to hold out hope to these people. Then he turned, promised to do his best, and was reminded by one of his own students that his best was good enough. And it was.

On second thought, maybe I can put on that happy face I need to put on. Maybe it doesn’t need to be an act. All I need to offer is hope, and all I need to do is my best. I think, between God and me, we can pull that off.

Adventures

Tolkien was right. They do sometimes make you late for dinner.

Last week, I led a field trip that I’d wanted to do for some time: I took my students to Seattle to see ACT Theatre’s production of “A Christmas Carol.” My school is small, but not small enough to fit into my little Acura—so Cheryl, one of the moms, borrowed a twelve-passenger van from another mom, topping off the gas before leaving, and van and Acura caravanned out of Oak Harbor about 9:30 in the morning.

Two and a half hours later, we had safely navigated the parking garages and were seated as the lights dimmed and the snow machines began turning. Another two hours, and we were walking back up the steps toward the exit, admiring the old theater and debating why the Ghost of Marley had sprung out of Scrooge’s bed (my personal theory: it was simply the scariest way possible. We expect our beds to be a refuge, not the home of the ghosts). After a final poll amongst the twelve teenagers, we decided on an early dinner at Red Robin in Everett, got back in the vehicles, and took to the road.

Won, our Korean exchange student, looked at the clock in my car and informed me that he thought it was too early for dinner.

“Think of it as a late lunch, then,” I said.

Since he hadn’t eaten his snack earlier, he seemed fine with this arrangement, and joined the other two boys in beguiling the time discussing the merits of gourmet hamburgers.

We had just gotten off on the Everett exit when my phone rang. It was Cheryl, and her voice was panicked. “The car is having problems!”

“We’re almost there… can you make it to the restaurant?”

“We’ll try…”

I went ahead and drove the final couple of minutes to Red Robin, unloaded the three boys who had ridden with me, and stepped inside the restaurant to warm up. My phone rang again.

“We couldn’t make it,” Cheryl said. “The van died at the stoplight, and when we got it to go again, we missed the turn. We’re at a park and ride.”

I thought fast. “My family lives about ten minutes away, and we have a van. Maybe one of my sisters is at home and can at least help the kids get to the restaurant. We can figure things out from there.”
“Oh. And we figured out what was wrong. I put gas in, and it’s a diesel.”

My friend Kristina—the engineer—had very recently felt the need to explain to me in great depth about exactly why putting gas in a diesel was a terrible thing to do. When Kristina decides to explain how something works, it’s comparable to what you get when you tell a nursing student that you have a bad ankle. I looked from my phone to the three boys. “They’ll be a while.”

While the boys ran around the nearby Toys R Us making fun of Legos and hitting each other with rubber balls, Cheryl and I did our best to straighten out the situation over the phone. My sister ended up using our van to not only pick up the vanload of kids, but to take them all the way back to Oak Harbor after dinner. The other van ended up at a shop in Everett overnight, and, last I heard, was all fixed up and running just fine.

When the boys and I knew that my sister was on her way with the other kids, we headed back to Red Robin, where the patient staff took us to our tables and fed us French fries while we waited.

“Well, Won,” I said, “You thought it was too early for lunch anyway. I guess now we’re having dinner at the right time.”

“But I didn’t have my lunch!”

I gestured toward the French Fries. “Sure you did. French Fries for lunch, and hamburgers for dinner half an hour later. It works. You get in your three meals.”

And Won, who is getting much better at American humor, thought it was absolutely hilarious. But, after all those hours of driving and waiting, everything was hilarious, including gas in a diesel engine!